Panic, fight-flight or freeze reactions are often the most recent, visible symptom of an accumulated grief that has not been expressed. The western culture in which I live has a deep well of grief from centuries of violence towards ourselves, our communities, and our environment. Processing that grief may appear on its surface to be a confusing and impossible task. It is not. However, grieving is an absolutely necessary step to prevent our self-destruction. It’s that serious.
A grief that is not allowed to flow through us produces a poisonous self-isolation and behaviors of domination and violence. We become cynical and angry, as if we are saying, “don’t touch me, get away from me, you could not possibly understand my pain, and I’m not ready to share it with you or anybody else because if I do I have no idea of what might happen next in a situation in which I have no control.”
The resistance to grieving is really about control: feelings control, pain control, damage control, and reality-story control. In doing so, we inadvertently damage ourselves with a self-inflicted illusion of separation. Said another way, feeling alone in a situation that appears to be out of control only tightens our grip on self-protection. We build emotional walls, a virtual fortress against our feelings which can make our lives so meaningless that our decision-making becomes careless and harmful to others.
Releasing our feelings is the key to ending that separation, by humbly accepting our place among all those who, being human like ourselves, also have grief and pain. It is radically comforting to feel that we belong. Once we have that experience, we have taken a giant step away from the culture of control, domination and violence that is based on separation.
The culture of violence will extinguish itself with no effort on our part — no opposition, no struggle to fix it or change it — as we empower ourselves to simply walk away from it.
When the denial of grief that fosters panic is gone, courage takes its place because courage is always there. It has simply been suppressed by the foreground grip of defenses around our vulnerability. Courage is a natural human asset, a natural healing power, that enables us to act in the face of uncertainty, and flow with situations that our minds will tell us are out of control.
We all — yes, ALL — have a frightened, naive self that has the desire to maintain control, and we all — yes, ALL — have the capability of responding with courageous, mature, disciplined compassion to that small self. That controlling impulse consumes a great deal of our energy, and when it relaxes, the energy is free to feed our courage, our heart and our willingness to do what may seem to be impossible.
It is difficult to believe with our minds that grief will ever re-assemble our broken hearts into a shining beacon of love. However, there is always a hidden opportunity to learn amazing things about one’s inner strength, dignity and compassion by allowing uncontrolled grief to flow. The trick is to get out of our heads and into our hearts, to just do it: try it alone, try it with a trusted friend, experiment with it, and see what happens.
Learning to own and communicate our pain disempowers the panic and grief, strips away the need to control it. In so doing, we provide ourselves with compassionate acceptance, the very thing our hearts are yearning to experience: permission to be exactly where we are, who we are and how we are. The process of letting go of emotional control always heals and restores our wholeness in the midst, and in spite of, our grief. That release, as irrational as it may seem, is creative, evolutionary and, from a whole-systems perspective, efficient.
We are capable of undoing what has been done for centuries. The culture of violence which generates continual panic can be unlearned. The human species is doing it now, today, through the solidarity of suffering through climate chaos and all of its cascading crises, including the pandemic. We are learning new maps for creating a culture of nonviolence such as peace and justice studies, restorative justice, nonviolent communication, trauma healing, transformational resilience, compassionate action, citizen diplomacy, appreciative inquiry… the list is long! There is a spontaneous, diffuse movement of movements arising globally that are building communities devoted to healing.
I am witnessing in my lifetime the world-wide discovery that we are not alone, we were never alone, and we never will be alone. We are supported by the natural empathy we have for each other. There is no need to protect and control our vulnerability. It’s that good. Out of all the suffering and desperation comes a surrender to our brothers and sisters, resulting in the often surprising, blissful experiences of nurturing, encouraging love. There is nothing to fear, no reason to panic.
If there is anything that “must” change, it is not out there in the power elite, it’s inside me and you. Our sense of isolation and being stuck in situations that are out of control is changing, and I would add, without much effort on our part. Help is not coming from centralized power structures, help is coming from individuals who feel they belong to each other and their place on this earth.
Let us focus our vision on that culture of belonging, a culture of peace, a culture of reconciliation and collaboration. Let us allow it to grow inside ourselves. I cannot participate in that collaboration if I am in a self-centered panic. I must compassionately acknowledge and release my grief, my self-pity and victimhood arising from my small self. I must surrender my distrust. Then the impossible becomes not only possible, it becomes real, here and now.